Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

19/01/2013 - 16/02/2013

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

18/01/2014 - 15/02/2014

Production Details

Written by Dave Armstrong
Directed by Danny Mulheron

Producer: Howard Taylor


From the team who brought you the smash hit The Motor Camp, playwright Dave Armstrong and director Danny Mulheron again combine talents to present a delightfully romantic and wickedly entertaining comedy set in a school gym.  

Politically correct principal Viv Cleaver is transforming low-decile Hautapu High School. The only thorn in her side is the Phys-Ed department. Unfit Laurie Connor spends his days in the gym watching TV and gambling with his talented yet unambitious sidekick Pat Kennedy. But then student-teacher Annie Tupua arrives. Could this star netballer and born-again Christian prove to be the game-changer that Viv needs? Sparks fly as different players joust for position and battle for each other’s souls in this big-hearted and comedy set in that most romantic of places – a school gym. 

Kings of the Gym stars the brilliant Ginette McDonald (My Brilliant Divorce), Chapman Tripp Award winner Richard Dey (All my Sons) the very talented Paul McLaughlin (Peninsula) and delightful ingénue Acushla-Tara Sutton (The Truth Game).  

A comedy in two halves, Kings of the Gym looks at the really important things in life: competition, compassion, Creation … and PE teaching. 

Performance Times:
Tues & Wed 6.30pm, Thurs to Sat 8pm
Sunday 4pm
Tickets: $25 – $46
$25 SPECIALS – Friday 18th Jan, Sunday 20th Jan
After show Q & A Tues 22nd Jan
(04) 801 7992  

Pre-show dinner available at Encore – phone 801 7996

The road to Kings of the Gym 

Playwright Dave Armstrong talks about the origins of his new play set in a school gymnasium, Kings of the Gym.

The initial idea for Kings of the Gym probably occurred in the mid 1970s in the gymnasium of my local secondary school. I remember back then that most gymnasiums in co-ed schools were like little man-caves – oases of testosterone where the PE teachers, who were usually male, ruled the roost. In their striped tracksuit trousers, with the ever-present whistles around their necks, these teachers would command us to go on long cross-country runs and play all sorts of games, which were highly competitive and very physical. Most of us enjoyed them but heaven help you if you were overweight, bookish or both. Liberal English, drama and art teachers wouldn’t go near the school gymnasium, preferring the coffee plungers, literary magazines and pottery mugs of the staff room.

Though as a breed, PE teachers seemed to be very different from other teachers, I enjoyed their company immensely. They were almost all uniformly contemptuous of modern, progressive education and perhaps therein lay their appeal. After a day of interactive learning I quite enjoyed playing a highly physical and competitive game of now-forbidden bull-rush in the gym. What interested me is that my liberal teachers, whom I really liked and respected, couldn’t believe that I enjoyed spending time in the company of the ‘Neanderthals’ in the PE department. It was true that these PE teachers could be boorish and insensitive at times, very like Laurie in the play, but I also knew that these kings of the gym really liked kids. And it’s very hard to dislike someone who likes you.

But Kings of the Gym is not really about PE teachers. The gym is merely the setting – that got me thinking about a variety of things. One was that a scummy, dirty gym of a tawdry failing low-decile school would be a really challenging place in which to set a romantic comedy.

But as well as being a gym rom-com, Kings of the Gym also looks at a number of issues, not just the obvious ones to do with politics and education, but also wider human issues such as tolerance.

We all think we are tolerant, but real tolerance is another issue altogether. As I was writing this play, a number of social and religious groups such as Destiny Church, Family First and Sensible Sentencing hit the headlines. Some of the members of these groups are highly intolerant, especially of gay rights groups, liberals, prisoners, schoolteachers and judges, to name a few. But I also noticed a growing intolerance amongst people like me to Christians and other conservative groups.

What would happen if people from these opposing groups found themselves all in the same place, say in a school gymnasium? It was then that I realised that even though only one of the four characters in Kings of the Gym is religious, this play is really about a battle for the soul. Each character seems to want every other character to think like them and believe what they believe – and are all prepared to fight to get their way. I found this battle both intriguing and at times very funny.

So how do I describe this battle for the soul set in that most unlikely colosseum – a school gymnasium? Kings of the Gym is definitely a comedy, though perhaps less of a farce than my last play at Circa, The Motor Camp. It features four good-natured intelligent characters who are fun to be with. Luckily, Kings of the Gym is performed by four good-natured intelligent actors who are fun to be with, so rehearsals, helmed by my old friend and colleague Danny Mulheron, have been a blast. We were also in the same PE class at school so have had a lot of fun recalling some of the more outrageous events that happened in our run-down, tawdry little school gym.

Kings of the Gym will make you laugh and no doubt rekindle some memories of stubby shorts, tracksuit trousers, and rompers in the school gym. But hopefully it will also get you thinking about some of the issues that are of importance in New Zealand today.

“Kings of the Gym is a decile-10 play that should be seen by everyone who has ever questioned what it is to be a Kiwi.”  ELSPETH SANDYS-NEW ZEALAND LISTENER

“The cast of four are terrific with impeccable comic timing. just the right mix of comedy, social comment and heart. It’s the perfect start to the theatrical year.”




Laurie Connor: Paul McLaughlin 
Pat Kennedy: Richard Dey
Viv Cleaver: Ginette McDonald
Annie Tupua: Acushla-Tara Sutton

Set Designer: Dennis Hearfield
Lighting Designer/Technical operator: Glenn Ashworth
Costume Designer: Gillie Coxill

Stage Manager: Oscar Mulheron
Set construction: Iain Cooper, John Hodgkins
Set Finishing/painting: Therese Eberhard, Lucy Muir
Pack-in: John Hodgkins, Iain Cooper, Simon Rayner, Petar Petrovich, Shaun O’Boyle
Lighting Crew: Jennifer Lal, Doug Bonallack, Simon Rayner
Publicity: Colleen McColl

Graphic Design: Rose Miller – Kraftwork
House Manager: Suzanne Blackburn
Box Office: Linda Wilson
Photography: Stephen A’Court 

Theatre , Political satire , Comedy ,

‘Kings’ still hilarious

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 20th Jan 2014

Kings of the Gym makes a welcome return almost a year to the day after its premiere. On both occasions it was received with cheers and loud applause as the excellent cast of Paul McLaughlin, Richard Dey, Ginette McDonald and Acushla-Tara Sutton took their curtain calls.

I can’t detect any major changes to the script or the production. No doubt some were made (the Black Cap’s test scores?) but I was still laughing at the barbed jokes and situations as Laurie Connor battles the forces of the politically correct education policies enshrined in NCEA and incompetently administered by the Principal, who in Ginette McDonald’s performance seems to have developed a penguin-like walk since a year ago.

He also battles with the idealism of the young as represented by the high achiever but naïve Silver Fern netball star, Annie, who, as a teacher trainee, ends up in the P.E. Department of Hautapu High School (Decile 2).

I praised the realism of the setting of the run-down gymnasium last year but on Saturday a friend at the interval mentioned that there was one thing missing from this “little man-cave” to use Dave Armstrong’s description. What was missing, she suggested, was the smell that such spaces emit.

Thankfully, director Danny Mulheron didn’t add smell to the production but I suspect he had a lot to do with some of the small comic touches that either I had forgotten or totally missed first time round.

The back of an office chair falls off as the Principal attempts to sit on it; Laurie enters wearing clip-on sunglasses, he flips them up and for the rest of the scene he looks like Mickey Mouse; the tricky comic dance steps as the two men re-enact Annie’s winning goal for the Silver Ferns.

The play has at its core a serious intent which challenges its audiences concerning tolerance of other people’s beliefs. This is made explicit in the second half and which is neatly bundled up into a happy ending in which everyone is discovered to be on the side of the angels. Unfortunately life’s not like that.


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Light comedy raises pertinent social questions

Review by Fiona McNamara 19th Jan 2014

Laurie Connor (Paul McLaughlin) is King of the Gym. As HoD of physical education at Hautapu High School, he spends his days in the gym staff room, making bets through the TAB phoneline. His side-kick and former student, now PE teacher Pat Kennedy (Richard Dey), jokes with him over the occasional beer or goon of wine during the school day.

Principal Viv Cleaver (Ginette McDonald) has had almost enough of all this. The board wants to get rid of Laurie, and she doesn’t want to see Pat wasting his potential and becoming the same as Laurie.  Disrupting the boys’ club in the gym, a new student teacher, Annie Tupua (Acushla-Tara Sutton), arrives. She, a rising netball star, diligent student and, though she hates to be a called, it a “Maori role-model” might be “just what Hautapu High School needs”. Then, when her strong Christian views interfere with her teaching Evolution in her second subject, Biology, we start to question whether this is the case.  

It is certainly character rather than plot that drives this play. Each of the four actors gives a strong performance that has us both sympathising with and criticising their characters, while never missing an opportunity for comedy. In particular, McLaughlin, McDonald and Dey demonstrate excellent comic timing – with McDonald able to make the most straight-laced character into the comic role that Armstrong intends.

By the time the interval comes around not a lot has happened: I’m not yet particularly invested in the characters, but I’ve had just enough light laughs to want to come back for the second half. The script could be slightly restructured with less exposition and the main dilemma of the second act introduced before the interval – to draw us back to discover the outcome.  

Much of the comedy comes from Laurie’s crude humour, which leads to an interesting discussion with another audience member in the interval, about whether you can put a racist/ sexist/ ableist character in a play without the play itself being racist/ sexist/ ableist.  You can, I think if you point out the characters’ flaws, which Kings of the Gym does, but still many of the younger audience members, with whom I spoke, were uncomfortable that these comments were largely what the comedy was based on.

While the production is played for laughs overall, it does raise some pertinent social questions. Annie certainly cares about the students and wants to help them find meaning and love – though we question her promoting God in a secular school. Meanwhile, Viv represents the establishment and the importance of playing by the rules. She tries to rein in Laurie’s behaviour, but her emphasis on results and ticking the boxes gets in the way of what really matters: the students’ happiness and development.

In direct contrast to Viv, Laurie certainly doesn’t play by the rules, but we can see the value in his laid-back, and perhaps more real, approach. We learn that it was Laurie who helped Pat as a teenager through his grief at loosing his father by putting him in front of a punching bag. It seems that this extends to the current students too; in the words of the ever-loyal Pat: “Laurie might have his faults but the kids love him.” 

It is curious that Laurie, the most flawed character, ends up in some ways the hero, with both Pat and, surprisingly, Annie, who initially was very skeptical of him, standing up for him. While this at first seems a questionable message to end on, it does cause us to continue questioning the characters’ attitudes long after the play ends.

Kings of the Gym is a light comedy that will get you laughing and questioning numerous different points of view that exist in New Zealand, with regard not only to education but also to each other and the world. It reminds us that we can’t simply dismiss other human beings as “insensitive” or “unrealistic” – there can be value in anyone’s approach.


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Life lessons in oases of testosterone

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 24th Jan 2013

Dave Armstrong has yet another comedy hit on his hands. Like his play, The Tutor, and the TV comedy, Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby, which he co-wrote with Danny Mulheron and Tom Scott, Kings of the Gym is concerned with education on one level but on another level, it goes deeper.

It all takes place in the tatty office of the physical education department of the low-decile Hautapu High School, which Dennis Hearfield’s setting has captured perfectly.

Armstrong describes school gymnasiums as like “little man-caves – oases of testosterone where the PE teachers ruled the roost”. [More


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Perfect start to theatrical year

Review by Lynn Freeman 24th Jan 2013

A comedy with everything you could wish for kickstarts an immensely promising Circa Theatre programme for 2013. A Dave Armstrong/Danny Mulheron production is a winning combo (The Motor Camp) but here they have both truly excelled. The satire in Kings of the Gym targets both the beleaguered education system and political correctness. Armstrong achieves the right blend of ferociously funny observations and genuine affection for his characters. They are people with whom we enjoy spending the evening.

The action takes place at a decile two high school where Laurie the Head of PhysEd (Paul McLaughlin) is what you might call a dinosaur – he is a gambler, he’s sexist, lazy, unfit and scathing of both the current ‘winning doesn’t count’ school ethos and NCEA. What he does have is a rapport with the kids.

His assistant is one of his former pupils Pat (Richard Dey) who’s loyal but a bit lost. They have thrust upon them a student, Annie, (Acushla-Tara Sutton) who disrupts the boys’ cosy arrangement with her views on teaching practices, assessments and religion.

Representing the establishment is Viv the Principal (Ginette McDonald), who will do anything to prove she can turn things around at the school. The cast of four are terrific with impeccable comic timing. McLaughlin has the best lines and he knows how to make the most of them. Dey and Sutton are delightful and McDonald’s experience in comedy shines through in what is by far the toughest and least sympathetic role. Mulheron is in his element with this script and this cast.

Supplementing the storyline are topical references to Novopay and NCEA and even to the Black Caps’ recent woes.

Designer Dennis Hearfield has worked his magic again, creating Laurie and Pat’s disordered bachelor pad office.

The opening night audience rewarded the script, direction and actors with sighs and gasps of concern for Laurie, Pat and Annie amidst the many belly laughs. We cared. Kings of the Gym has just the right mix of comedy, social comment and heart. It’s the perfect start to the theatrical year.  


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Critical stages captured with intelligent and creative flair

Review by John Smythe 20th Jan 2013

If you’ve assumed, as I did on first seeing the title, that Kings Of The Gym is about testosterone-pumped blokes competing, preening and posing, it’s not. Far from it. This gym and the Head of Phys Ed’s office, which overlooks it, are the grungiest part of low-decile Hautapu High School and its titular ‘kings’ excel only at under-achievement.  

Once-promising rugby flanker (in 1985) Laurie Connor, played with down-to-earth relish by Paul McLaughlin, is very unfit – in more ways than one, it seems: a question that lies at the heart of this play. Referred to more than once as “a dinosaur”, he is scathing of a new New Zealand Curriculum that values participation above winning and swamps him with its bi-cultural perspective. As for his personal life, his most intimate relationship seems to be with a TAB call centre woman, whom he has on speed-dial.

Laurie’s mysteriously loyal junior and ex-pupil, Pat Kennedy, crafted with much subtle perception and under-played wit by Richard Dey, is clearly operating way below his potential, as a teacher and in life. Is he badly done by or doing it to himself? Is he keeping safe or hiding out and ripping himself off? Revealing the whys and wherefores of this is also central to the play’s well-wrought structure.

Battling with these circumstances, her Board of Trustees and the Ministry of Education to elevate Hautapu High’s low academic performance and reputation, not least by attracting good staff, is ex-science teacher, now Principal, Viv Cleaver, referred to as “Cleavage” by ‘the boys’. Ginette McDonald is beautifully modulated in this role, distilling delicious comic moments from their all-too-human situation.

Into all this, thanks to Viv’s “very good friend Robyn at the College of Education,” comes bright young student teacher, netball player, sports all-rounder and committed member of the Redemption Church (think Destiny Church), Annie Tupua. Acushla-Tara Sutton’s truly splendid performance exemplifies the confidence of idealistic youth until unexpected changes and challenges expose her vulnerability and see her – and others – mature significantly. 

Indeed Armstrong ensures all the characters experience a full range of emotions and – directed by the ever-astute Danny Mulheron – all the actors step up to the proverbial mark as individuals and as a team. 

Having created the high school TV comedy series Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby (2005 & 2006), followed by the stage plays The Tutor (2005) and The Motor Camp (2011), Kings of the Gym is the next education-themed Armstrong/Mulheron collaboration.

Promoted as “PC v PE!”, it continues the tradition of trading in humour-of-unease by appearing to pick on a special needs student, Dougal, and a Laotian high-achiever dubbed “Chopsticks” because Laurie can’t be bothered learning to pronounce Xiang Lao Ping. Maori phrases and protocol come in for the usual ribbing too, and Laurie’s inability to reconcile sport with the arts in the proposed new complex gives rise to lampooning the very art we are witnessing.

But all that is part of the means to a greater end. In his programme note Armstrong calls it “a play about the battle for the soul. We all think we are tolerant, but deep down many of us want everyone else to think just like we do.” Not that his characters proselytise as such; the conflict comes more from their resistance to each other’s values and hidden agendas, and from the human tendency to cling to comfort zones rather than risk further hurt or failure.

The fates of Pat and Annie – at the starts of their careers and situated between the students in the gym below and the more set-in-their-ways Laurie and Viv above – are of special interest. Both have had a tough start in life and both have found support in very different places which, while doubtless ‘saving’ them in the short term, may or may not serve their longer term interests.

While Laurie appears to have consolidated – as in solidified – his position, Viv continues to strive for something better. And they all believe their way is valid. All the characters are flawed and all have their good points. No-one speaks for Armstrong – and no-one doesn’t either. It is a great strength of his writing that he is not telling us what to think but is asking us to think as well as feel for ourselves.

The dramatic eruptions are surprising, provocative and confronting, demanding we reassess some of the judgements we will inevitably have made and inviting us to determine where we stand on the questions raised, about life choices, teaching styles, education policy, religion, gender politics, confronting change and taking charge of one’s own destiny.

The laugh-out-loud moments, of which there are many, cannot be detailed without giving the show away. Suffice to say the comedy is largely well earned and deftly executed.

Gillie Coxill’s costume designs hit the button in every respect. Dennis Hearfield’s set, lit by Glenn Ashworth, looks thoroughly lived in: the authentic lair of a gym-teaching ‘dinosaur’. We have to squint a bit to believe the back wall is a gym-width away and the uncredited sounds ‘off’ don’t quite create the illusion of students at play a floor below, but overall the visual effect evokes a very recognisable reality.

While Kings of the Gym is perhaps not the ideal title, the play itself and this world premiere production captures individuals and our society at critical stages in their evolution with intelligent and creative flair.

An excellent start to the year for Circa Theatre. 


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